A few weeks back, I ran into a pristine batch of John D. MacDonald novels. Stirred up some old memories. I’d run through all of them in the early 1980s, back when I was first married and the only books I could afford were whatever paperbacks the old Kroch’s and Brentano’s had on the sale table. The older genre titles would always end up there eventually. It’s where I found Ross Thomas and Robert B. Parker and Ross MacDonald. And it’s where I first met Travis McGee.
We were living in a crappy little apartment then. I wouldn’t call it hand-to-mouth, because if you’d gotten a hand anywhere near my mouth, I’d probably have taken a bite. Not a lot of meat on the menu back then. We were living on ramen noodles and off-brand mac and cheese. Books, even two-titles-for-a-buck specials off the sales table, were the only luxury I had.
So I remember the garage sale. The day after my third kid’s baptism, I got unemployed. Went back to throwing stock third-shift at the grocery store while I started cobbling a freelance business together, but money was tight. So my books? They went out on the card table along with a lot of other stuff I didn’t really care about. And this fifty-something lady in one of those Members’ Only type jackets took a look and said “Oh! I love Travis McGee!” And she bought the whole damn pile.
So when I saw this batch at Booked for Murder in Madison, I bought up everything they had. Darker Than Amber, A Tan and Sandy Silence, A Purple Place for Dying, The Lonely Silver Rain, Cinnamon Skin. I’ve been working my way through them. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe I just have too much meat in my diet now, but I can’t help but feel MacDonald was doing something right on almost every page that I keep doing wrong.
He’s writing like it isn’t just the story that matters, it’s the words you use to tell it.
Strip it down, that’s what we keep getting beat into our heads. Never use two words when only one will do. And so we’ve got these sleek, nasty Terminator stories running around, all the flesh burnt off, their shiny endoskeletons crushing the skulls of readers beneath their stainless steel metatarsals. We are efficient, relentless, graceless, harsh and cruel.
But even if the subject is crime and the story is dark, wouldn’t you rather look at the graceful curve of a woman’s calf ripple into a knee and up into a firm expanse of thigh instead of a titanium tibia and fibula tucking into a Radio Shack ball joint? Even if the leg is stamping a stiletto heel into some poor schmuck’s eye?
A paragraph in Darker Than Amber caught my eye. It’s early on in the story, just a throwaway, really. McGee has saved a woman he doesn’t know from a horrible death. The next day, they are on his boat, their journey and the story just beginning.
We passed a bar where about forty pelicans stood in single file in about an inch of water. I pointed it out to her and she said “Yeah. Birds.” Most people are as blind as Vangie. Eyesight is what they use to get around without running into things. But they find no aesthetic value in what they see.
So next time, before I boil all the words away, I’m going to make sure I’m leaving enough flesh on the bones to seduce the reader’s eye. Leave a little aesthetic value, just in case anybody’s looking.